MINNEAPOLIS — Carl Eller emerged from a 7-hour mediation session between the NFL and its locked-out players and let out a big sigh.
"Tough day," he said.
When a Hall of Fame defensive end and one of the most feared players of his generation gives that kind of evaluation, it's safe to say that the negotiations between the owners and the players aren't getting any easier.
The two sides resumed their court-ordered talks on Tuesday after a three-day break, with no sign that an agreement is any closer. The lockout is in its second month and a federal judge is expected to decide soon on the players' request to halt the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy and owners Pat Bowlen of Denver and Jerry Richardson of Carolina on the NFL side on Tuesday.
Named plaintiffs Ben Leber, Mike Vrabel and Eller represented the group of current, former and future players who are asking for the injunction on the lockout and have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league.
All declined comment at the end of the long day of negotiation. The two sides will meet again on Wednesday morning in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
The talks are the latest step in the contentious fight over a new collective bargaining agreement. Sixteen days of mediated talks in Washington fell short, resulting in a class-action antitrust lawsuit filed by the players against the NFL and the owners' decision to lock out the players after they disbanded their union.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson said at a hearing on April 6 that she would rule "in a couple of weeks" on the players' request to lift the lockout. Wednesday will be exactly two weeks from the hearing.
With Nelson's decision looming, some have wondered how eager either side would be to negotiate a settlement given that the ruling on the injunction could swing the leverage to one side or the other.
But Michael Hausfeld, an attorney representing retired players, said on Tuesday morning that both sides are committed to the mediation sessions.
"This is no charade. This is no illusion. This is going to come to a resolution either by the parties compromising or agreeing or by a judgment," Hausfeld said. "And even with a judgment, many times there is then a discussion as to how to compromise the judgment so there is not a winner-take-all situation.
"This takes time. The court is doing everything within its power to get the parties to realize that."
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the players' trade association, did not attend the session on Tuesday due to a family emergency and neither did lead attorney Jeffrey Kessler.
When discussions concluded on Friday, Boylan assigned some weekend homework. Hausfeld walked into the federal courthouse on Tuesday with a document that he estimated at about 100 pages responding to the questions Boylan asked them to answer.
"What this mediation is about, what the dispute is about, is the structure of the game and the relationship between the rookies, the active players, the retirees, with each other and the league," Hausfeld said. "Those are fundamental."
Nelson ordered the talks, which lasted 13 hours over two days last week.
Players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning filed the request for the injunction along with the antitrust claim. The lawsuit has been combined with two other similar claims from retirees, former players and rookies-to-be, with Eller the lead plaintiff in that group.
The prospects of Nelson's ruling giving one side leverage could influence the mediation, Hausfeld said.Comment on this story
"I hope everyone in the room, owners, active players, rookie representatives and retiree representatives understand that this is a situation that not only involves their interests but the interests of many fans and other people who depend upon the game being played," Hausfeld said. "And if everyone seriously approaches the issues with the manner in which the court has, then hopefully progress can be made."
Any decision Nelson makes, Hausfeld said, would certainly be appealed to the federal appellate court.
That means more time for legal maneuvering, further jeopardizing the 2011 NFL season.
"There's no question that any ruling Judge Nelson makes will be a first step," he said. "It will be taken on appeal."